Marjoe

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The Ancient Greek word "arete" can roughly be translated as "virtue", but it does convey subtle shades of meaning that "virtue" lacks. Generally "virtue" exclusively connotes good morality, but arete means that someone has lived up to their full potential - which might mean that they are an upstanding pillar of their community, but they could also just be very, very good at their job. 

For example, the Iliad makes it clear that Achilles was the greatest warrior in the entire fleet, but he was also temperamental, petty and rude. For the Greeks that duality wasn’t a contradiction: he was good in one way, but bad in another. In America, however, we have a hard time with that distinction. We see athletes that who are great at their sport and also great role models as being different from athletes that are only proficient at scoring points. So should we separate someone’s personal ethics from their professional skills, or should they be eternally intertwined?

Marjoe is a documentary from the early 1970s that really explores this tension. Marjoe is an evangelical preacher who goes from town to town preaching the Gospels, and by every observable metric he’s great at it: he moves his crowds so much that they begin speaking in tongues, he collects a lot of money in donations, he's regularly invited back to towns he just left. He’s also a self proclaimed atheist who is well aware that he’s just putting on a show. Is a preacher who is great at preaching empty words still a great preacher?

The people in Marjoe’s crowds would probably say no: for an evangelical, the most important thing in the world is that a person believes the Gospel with all of their heart. That goes for people that aren't preachers, and it should go double for people who are trying to spread the Word.

As a nonbeliever, I think that the service Marjoe offers is still valid even if Marjoe is faking it. To me, it’s not about what’s going on with him, it’s about what’s going on inside the audience. If he promises a show and delivers it, if he legitimately stirs their passions up, then he’s legitimately done his job well.

The ultimate decider, however, is probably Marjoe himself – and he clearly doesn’t know.

If you didn't know Marjoe's backstory, he would just sound like a fraud. Knowing his past, however, makes his story a bit more complicated. He started preaching he was four years old, basically as a sideshow attraction. Young Marjoe was offered up to a hungry public by his father, who was also a preacher. There's an interview with Marjoe in an anonymous hotel room where he speculates that between the time he was four and fourteen he raised nearly three million dollars – which in 1960s money was an absolutely insane amount of cash – but that he never personally saw it; it all went to his parents. When he was a teenager he rebelled against his parents and stopped preaching. Later he realized that he needed money, and all he knew how to do was work the revival circuit, so he returned to the path he had left behind.

It’s easy to look at Marjoe and see a Disney kid – someone who was a child star and then unfortunately grew up. Whatever opinion you have of him says as much about you as it does about him: the compassionate might look at his misbegotten childhood and forgive him for being lost as an adult; the stern might say that he forfeited any right to sympathy when he made a conscious decision to return to a path he knew wasn’t right for him; and the ambivalent might look at his ambivalence and sympathize. After all, Marjoe believes some of what he says – he just doesn’t believe in the fire-and-brimstone-and-damnation bits of evangelical theology. Unfortunately, he has to preach hellfire because that’s what sells. He wants the spotlight and the money, but he also wants a clean conscience - but he doesn't know how to have both.

This documentary is a mixture of private interviews with Marjoe and footage of him at work, and they make an interesting contrast. (Although - truth be told - the movie would work much better if it wasn't such an evenly divided split between the two halves of the story; every bit of interview footage offers new insights, but the preaching footage grows a little repetitive, mostly because it's purposefully built on repeating the same words in the same cadences to get the same response out of the audience over and over.) Watching him parade around as a moral man and knowing his private doubts makes it hard to parse how to feel about him. In one way, he's taking the easy road out by returning to the revival circuit, but forcing himself to go out night after night with his dad (whom he barely speaks to anymore) and collecting what he considers to be filthy money also looks like it's hard for him. 

It's unclear if Marjoe is virtuous by the modern sense of the word "virtue". Yes, he's lying to his flock, but he's honest with us. His audience would probably hate him if they knew what he really felt, but he seems more honest than many of the other preachers he shares the stage with - many of whom were probably beloved till they died. He's wrestling with wickedness and righteousness in a way that marks a sincerely religious man - but he's pretending to be a very different type of religious man, one whom has absolute faith. No, there probably isn't a simple answer to the question "is Marjoe a good man?" But after watching him work the crowd till the holy ghost entered their bodies, I can say definitively that he has arete, because he is very good at what he does, even if he's doing the wrong thing.

Winner: Draw

Marjoe On IMDB